Saturday, January 24, 2015

From Alexander the Great to Johnny Depp

Rum’s one of the few drinks versatile enough to suit any climate. The demon goes swimmingly with boiling water, lemon juice, a clove and a honey, in a glass with a spoon left in to prevent its breaking. It’s called rhum grog in the Gstaad and elsewhere in the Alps, and served apres-ski, but also in Sun Valley.                                        

    It’s an entirely different drink sipped under an equatorial sun, with lime and tonic or fruit juice and shaved ice, while the shaded eye takes in blue sky and water. Rum wasn’t invented in the Caribbean but it was perfected in those latitudes. Today its unique, mellow charm accounts for a hefty percentage of the total sales of spirits in the U.S.
The history of rum is tied up with that of sugar cane, which was supposedly brought back from India by Alexander the Great three centuries before Jesus was born. But it wasn’t until the middle of the seventh century AD that the alcoholic beverage made from fermented and distilled sugar cane and molasses arrived in Europe by Arab caravan.
Speculation has it that Columbus carried rum to the West Indies on his second voyage there. It became widely available in the 16th century after Spanish settlers began to make and export it. Written records from Barbados in 1600 contain a recipe for rum punch. The name itself has been attributed to the Latin term for sugar cane, Saccharum officinarum, but also to an admiral in the British Navy nicknamed “Old Rummy” who prescribed rum as an antidote to scurvy (which it isn’t).
Still, rum’s probably still the most romantic drink, obviously as rich in history as in calories, associated with the discovery of America, West Indian adventuring, pirates and the Spanish Main. Rum was popular with American colonists, too, for the same reasons it’s popular today: it tastes good, and it’s relatively cheap. Allegedly Paul Revere got pumped on rum before charging off to warn against the encroaching British; George Washington got elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses after distributing 75 gallons of rum to potential voters.
Before the Civil War, rum was also made in New England, of all un-sunny places, part of the now-infamous trading cycle that included importing sugar cane from the Caribbean with which to make the drink, sent to Africa to purchase slaves, which were sent to the West Indies and sold so more sugar cane could be bought. Profits were raked off at each stop. During Prohibition, rum made its way through the swamps of Florida and south Louisiana to many an American cocktail glass. Even today, rum has a raffish rep.   
The make this adaptable, deletable drink sugar cane is crushed right after harvest, the juice boiled down to concentrate the sugar, most of which is removed by centrifuge to leave still-sweet molasses. Distinctly different styles of rum are made by distilling either plain cane juice, or molasses, by varying the time - and amount - of distillation, and the time it spends in wood. One way producers fudge this last, color-enhancing step is by adding caramelized sugar to the product and foregoing the cost of real barrel aging.
Rum ranges from 80 to 150 proof. With a few exceptions, the lower the alcohol the more complex, and better, the flavor. Americans have long been in love with rum mixed with fruit juice or coconut milk. The daiquiri and the pina colada are okay vehicles for the higher proofed stuff, but the best way to drink fine, flavorful rum is neat.

Rums from Spanish-speaking islands of the Caribbean, and those from South America, are often filtered to make them lighter in color and body, and high in alcohol. Puerto Rican and Cuban rums are commonly 100 proof, and not as flavorful, although there are notable exceptions, among them the pricy Ron del Barrillo. What’s called demeraran run is made in Guyana by a rapid fermentation process that reduces the rummy flavor, then caramelized and bottled at high alcohol. It was once the most popular rum punch ingredient, though no longer.
More flavorful, heavier rums comes from the English-speaking islands, most notably Jamaica. They’re dark, even opaque, because the residue of earlier fermentations, known as “dunder,” is added to each new batch of molasses before a slower, more natural fermentation is allowed to happen. Though the juice, distilled twice, is quite clear, it obtains its lovely tawny hue from time spent in oak casks.
There’s a lot of In-between the light and dark styles: Haiti and Martinique make rum from sugar cane and not from molasses, and age it to a point where it resembles middle-brow cognac. Barbancourt, of Port au Prince, even ranks its version with stars; Martinique’s La Mauny is aged in Limousine oak. But the best all-round rum option is, in my opinion, Barbados’s Mount Gay: medium body and color, and great flavor, whether with a splash of Schweppes or a lime wedge.                                         

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